President Trump, Attorney General Bill Barr, and a chorus of Republican legislators have been calling for a repeal or significant change to a law called Section 230 for years. Now, for the first time, the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, and Google are testifying Wednesday before a congressional committee specifically about Section 230 — and its future.
Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Sundar Pichai will (virtually) come before the Senate Commerce Committee to discuss, as per the hearing’s title, “Does Section 230’s Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?” But they will also be asked about digital privacy and how the digital ad industry has hurt journalism.
The hearing, which comes less than a week before the presidential election, will address what has become a major issue among some conservatives. Republican officials will have a chance to score political points by complaining about a perceived anti-conservative bias in social media and bash the people they deem responsible for supposedly silencing conservative voices on a big stage. Democrats also have concerns about Big Tech’s power that they will want to address, as some of these companies face increased scrutiny over antitrust practices and even lawsuits.
Section 230 allows websites like Facebook and Twitter to host content from users without being civilly liable for that content. For instance, you can sue a Twitter user for a defamatory tweet, but you can’t sue Twitter itself. This is what enables these sites to exist in the first place.
Without immunity from lawsuits over third-party content, platforms wouldn’t allow it at all. The law also allows platforms to moderate user content as they see fit without losing that immunity. That has become a major sticking point for conservatives who feel that platforms are unfairly censoring them.
Trump has called for an outright repeal of the law, while Barr and several Republican legislators want to change it to require websites to be “politically neutral” in moderation decisions.
Democrats also have issues with Section 230 and have promoted bipartisan proposals to change it. Their complaints are mostly focused on giving victims of illegal actions committed by a platform’s users to have recourse to sue the platforms if they allowed or encouraged those actions. That was the logic behind FOSTA-SESTA, which removed immunity protections from sites that host sex trafficking ads. It’s also part of the EARN IT Act, which would remove immunity from sites that host child sexual abuse materials.
Then there’s the PACT Act, proposed by Democrat Sen. Brian Schatz and Republican Sen. John Thune in June. This would amend Section 230 to force websites to clearly explain their moderation rules in an acceptable use policy, issue quarterly reports detailing content that has been moderated, respond quickly to reported violations, and give users a chance to appeal violations, or else lose their immunity protections. It would also give the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) the ability to enforce some of those rules.
It’s likely that the Republicans in the committee, at least, will focus their questions to the CEOs on moderation biases that they believe unfairly target conservatives. Though multiple studies and reports have shown that conservative content is more widely shared and spread on platforms than liberal material, Republicans have come to view Section 230 as the reason why social media platforms censor conservative political opinions or figures, rather than those opinions or people breaking platforms’ rules.
The most high-profile recent examples are Twitter’s fact-checks of several Trump tweets that contained misinformation, and Facebook and Twitter’s decision to limit the spread of a New York Post story of questionable veracity about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden. Republicans have used their spotlight in other tech-related hearings to rail against Big Tech companies for perceived anti-conservative bias and they will likely do so here as well.
As for the Democrats, they may well touch on Section 230 — the EARN IT and PACT Acts were co-authored by Democrats and committee members Richard Blumenthal and Brian Schatz, respectively — but will likely also ask about digital privacy, antitrust, and how tech companies’ business practices have harmed local news outlets. Democrats refused to agree to subpoena the CEOs until those topics were added to the hearing, and ranking committee member Sen. Maria Cantwell just issued a report, “Local Journalism: America’s Most Trusted News Sources Threatened,” that placed much of the blame for the journalism industry’s woes at Google and Facebook’s digital feet.
If there’s one thing both sides of the aisle agree on, it’s that Big Tech is now too big, and has too much control over many aspects of American life. This hearing should give us a preview of what they hope to do about it.
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